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April 27, 2011

UNC players impacted in Draft

This should have been a year similar to 1998, when Carolina had three players selected in the first round of the National Football League draft.

Greg Ellis, Vonnie Holliday and Brian Simmons all heard their names called in the first round that April, with four Tar Heels going in the later rounds.

In 2002, the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs chose Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims early in the first round.

Being picked in the first round provides excellent publicity for the school and pays handsomely at the bank when players begin cashing their NFL checks.

Fortunately, these players have all enjoyed varying degrees of success as professionals.

But a drought of sorts in the draft coincided with the lean years at UNC in seasons 2002 through 2008.

One player, Kentwan Balmer, a discovery of sorts by Ken Browning in recruiting, was chosen in the first round during this stretch. He was the only one during this time period.

Not until 2009 would Carolina again make an impact even approaching the drafts of the late 1990s and early 21st century, when Hakeem Nicks went to the New York Giants in the first round and four of his teammates were selected as well.

This was going to be the year when Carolina put a special stamp on the draft, with several possible first-round selections and a string of other picks in the early rounds.

When the draft begins on Thursday night at 8 pm, Robert Quinn's name will almost assuredly be called at some point of the first round, but he could be the only Tar Heel taken among those opening-round selections.

The troubles that plagued the team last season, such as academic issues and three players taking money from agents or their representatives, will likely dull some of the luster in this draft for Carolina and its former players.

Not playing at all in 2010, or participating in a portion of the season, is going to hinder where some of these guys go in the draft.

Let's start with Quinn.

Anyone who watched him in 2009 knows there is probably not a better defensive end prospect in the country.

He is extraordinarily fast; he's strong, and he rushes with great leverage and balance, qualities that make him hard to block. In a passing league such as the NFL, he's going to get noticed quickly because he will put hurting many of the league's quarterbacks.

Nevertheless, during one of the seemingly endless ESPN previews of the draft this week, one analyst said Quinn has supposedly slipped. Personally, I'd be surprised if his skills have slipped.

If he had played last season, some team in the top five would have had a hard time overlooking him.

His talent is in the range of two other former Tar Heels: Lawrence Taylor and Peppers, both sack masters in the NFL. Quinn also has a great work ethic and desire to go with his tremendous talent.

If ever there was a defensive end to take with one of the first few picks, he is it.

Probably no one hurt their chances more in this draft, though, than Marvin Austin and Greg Little.

Each could have played his way into the first round or early second. But they both missed the entire season after taking money from an agent and had to try to make up ground at the combine and in workouts.

They could become a bargain for a couple of teams. Each will get a chance to prove himself on the field and have a successful career.

The problem is that NFL careers are notoriously short.

Even if it's not a single serious injury, the wear and tear on a player's body can slow a person enough to make him vulnerable for some younger guy to come along and take his job in a few short years.

The optimum earning potential for elite pro football players is getting picked early so they can land a large signing bonus, which they will then keep even if their career is shortened by injury.

As for UNC, this draft should still provide plenty of positive publicity because so many former Tar Heels are likely to be chosen before the draft ends.

But it's not likely to be the awing kind of impact the school enjoyed in 1998, when three players forever became "first-rounders."



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